30/05/2012

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (GAME BOY COLOR)

Joss Whedon is currently riding high after the success of Avengers Assemble, but I'll always remember him for creating a different team of super-powered friends who battle world-destroying evil on a weekly basis. I am, of course, talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer - that televisual mélange of goofy horror, kung-fu, feminism and post-Valley Girl witticisms that entranced me as a teenager. I love Buffy, as I mentioned when I was making the fake NES version, but I've always stayed away from the videogames based on the series. Too great the chance of a tedious licensed cash-in with none of the wit and the charm of the show, those qualities replaced with endless interchangeable enemies and frustrating camera problems. That was then, though. I've played enough dreck over the course of VGJunk's run so far that I think I can handle some disappointment. So, with that in mind, today I'll be talking about Game Brains' / THQ's 2000 Game Boy Color slay-em-up Buffy the Vampire Slayer.



That's right, the Game Boy Color, the unexciting middle child between the original Game Boy and the Game Boy Advance. But look! The Buffy logo is in a nice shade of purple! You wouldn't get that on the plain old Game Boy. Granted, it's not all that exciting at the moment, but I'm sure the GBC's ability to output colours other than spinach green will really lift this game.


See, things are looking better already! There's no recreation of the famous theme tune, but given the sound capabilities of the GBC that's probably for the best. I'm sure you're all anxious to get down to the business of vampire slaying, but as this is a game based on a TV show there's got to be some kind of story, right?


Indeed there is! That means at some point there will have been people arguing over whether this games is "canon" or not. All I'll say is that if this story is a bona fide part of the Buffy universe then it's a good job they made it into a video game, because it'd make for an extremely dull forty-five minute episode. Anyway, Buffy stops by the house of her friend and non-super-power-haver Xander.


So, there was an episode of Buffy where Buffy was actually insane, and the events of the TV series were her psychotic delusions as she drooled her mind away in a psychiatric hospital (it's okay, it was just the effects of a demon's poison, she's not really insane. I know, phew, right?). The events of this videogame must be set during that episode, because this picture clearly shows Buffy peering into a doll's house and checking on the figurines of her "friends" that she's carved out of soap and painted with the leftovers of her prison meals.
Okay, that's a little unfair - the developers were only working with the power of the Game Boy Color, after all. It's not easy to get an accurate likeness of a person in that small a space, let alone three of them. Still, Xander's boxy face, a handsome face constructed from flesh-coloured Lego, a face that bears a striking similarity to the old Mac alert icon - that face makes me laugh every time I look at it.


"Hi, I'm Nicholas Brendon. I starred as Xander in television's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but you probably remember me best from the classic 2007 movie Fire Serpent. It was about sentient fire monsters from the sun!"
Moving on - Buffy, Xander and Anya... what? Oh, yeah, that was supposed to be Anya sitting next to Xander. Anyway, after a brief chat Buffy decides to go on patrol through the local cemetery. She's not looking for teenagers doing some cheeky underage drinking: she's hunting the undead menace of the vampire. Although good luck trying to get through a cemetery at night without seeing at least one group of kids sharing a bottle of crème de menthe they've smuggled away from their parents. There's one now!


A vampire, I mean, not a boozy teen. The differences are subtle, but you can tell he's a vampire by the fact he's wearing an electric pink Miami Vice suit. Teenagers get a lot of flak these days but at least they don't dress like Sonny goddamn Crockett.
I'm sure you've figured out by now that this game is a side-scrolling action game where you control Buffy as she kills vampires. Given the nature of the license, there are really only two routes a Buffy game can ever go down - a third-person punch-a-thon or something completely unrelated to the theme of the show, like a Buffy-theme clone of Puzzle Bobble or something. This particular game has chosen the obvious route, and it's your job to re-kill all the various monsters that are roaming Sunnydale.


To accomplish this, you can use punches and kicks. Button A punches, button B kicks, the d-pad moves you around and makes you jump. Simple enough. In case you've got no idea what all this Buffy the Vampire Slayer nonsense is about, and you need a little more explanation than that given by the title (which is a fair amount of explanation, let's be honest), the show is about a girl who has something special about her, something that'll be familiar to videogame players the world over - she's the Chosen One. Chosen to be the Slayer, to be more accurate: a young woman with super-strength / super-reflexes / super-stamina / super-supplies of mid-battle quips who is tasked with killing vampires and demons and occasionally Frankenstein's Monster-type things.


Just punching things isn't enough, though. Being undead, you can't just punch a vampire to death; you've got to stake them through the heart, and that's where the game's fighting system gets a little more complex. Every enemy has a green stamina bar which you can reduce by hitting them. However, they don't die once it's empty - they just, uh, fall over. Then you've got to stand over their prone body and press down and A to stake them. Simple enough, but once they're down their stamina bar refills, and once it's back to max they can get up again. You don't have to wait until their bar's empty, either: Buffy has a very useful sweep attack that knocks enemies over, but of course they get up faster because they still have some stamina. This leads to quite a nice little piece of risk-and-reward gameplay - do you risk getting hit whilst battering your opponent to bloody pulp, or do you try for the quick takedown and hope you can stake them before they can get back up?


Buffy has her own stamina bar, but she also has a health bar. Vampires can only hurt you when your stamina is depleted and you fall on your back, giving them unhindered access to your neck and allowing them to drain your health until you've mashed the buttons long enough to get up. It's not a bad system, and it certainly feels like a decent compromise to what I'd call the Superman Problem - when your main character is supposedly supernaturally tough, how do you make the enemies a credible threat? In Superman's case you don't, and that's why (amongst other reasons) all Superman games are shit, but in Buffy's case I think they've handled it quite well.
That's enough about game mechanics, though, because Buffy has decided she's done enough patrolling for one night and is heading to the local nightclub for some relaxation. Never mind that there was a vampire leaping out of the bushes every ten paces, Buffy's satisfied that a ten-minute patrol of one side of the cemetery will keep the residents of Sunnydale safe for tonight and she really doesn't want to miss happy hour.


Again, it's unfair to be too critical of the art here given the hardware limitations. That's not going to stop me, though - look at Buffy's neck! She's like a giraffe in a halter top. No wonder there were so many vampires about, you could feed a family / coven of five on that thing. She's the vampire equivalent of a KFC bucket.


The next stage is set on the streets of Sunnydale, and the suited vampires have been replaced with these undead biker-gang members. They're carrying chains but they fight pretty much the same, which means they just hop around ineffectually until I can land a decent punch on them. The combat is basic, but Buffy does have a few extra moves beyond the basic punch and kick to liven things up: there's a jumping kick and a forward roll that's very useful for both dodging attacks and quickly covering the distance between our hero and any enemy she's clobbered to the floor. As the levels progress the enemies regain their stamina much faster and therefore get up more quickly, so rolling around like an excited child who's just discovered gymnastics becomes vital later on when you need to close the distance between you and your victims in a hurry.


And then you fight a ninja, in keeping with the 80's theme of the enemies thus far - that decade truly was the golden age of the Shadow Warrior in popular culture. Personally, I blame Alternative Software's 1988 home computer "classic" BMX Ninja. This ninja doesn't have a BMX but he does have a sword (sorry, a katana) that he seems rather reluctant to use, which is downright foolish. If I was fighting a semi-legendary warrior renowned for killing people of my kind - vampires I mean, not ninjas, although Buffy the Ninja Slayer could be an interesting show in its own right - I'd want to use all the tools at my disposal. Or maybe I'd use my ninja techniques instead of standing in the middle of the street and threatening young women.
The ninja isn't very difficult to beat. In fact, I beat him by luring him to the corner, tripping him up and staking him right away. Efficiency is the key here, folks.


Buffy's speech bubble is obscuring Xander's face, which is something we can all be thankful for. Plot-wise, Buffy has received a phone call from her former lover, vampire and Intercontinental Champion of Brooding, Angel. He's warning her about danger, quelle surprise, because he never calls just to see how she's doing, the insensitive prick. This all boils down to Buffy entering the sewers, because everyone loves sewer levels.


Today's vampires: undead hobos! Just because you're an undead monster infected with the soul of a demon, it doesn't mean you're safe from the economic problems facing the world today. These vampires, other than possessing a drop-kick attack that makes Captain Kirk seem as brutally graceful as Tony Jaa, are the same as the other vampires, and here we've stumbled onto Buffy the Vampire Slayer's main problem: the dread force that is Tedium.
The thing is, nothing changes. Once you've killed one vampire, you've killed them all, and barring the occasional different move they all fight the same and die the same - do them some damage, trip them up, stake in the strawberry tart, done. Every stage follows the same pattern of Buffy wandering through the area until all the vampires are dead, and she never learns any new moves or picks up any weapons to help with the carnage. I say no weapons, but there are actually the odd items that you can pick up and throw at the enemies. There's a can of paint next to the biker vampire pictured above, for instance. That's all well and good, but what about a sword or crossbow or something? Buffy used a rocket launcher once. I want a rocket launcher.


No boss this time, and Buffy exits the sewers to find she's made a wrong turn and ended up in the zoo. What manner of horrors could we possibly encounter in a zoo? Vampiric kangaroo? Zombified platypus?


I'll be honest, I wasn't expecting the Neon Zulu here. These guys put up a little more of a fight, mostly because they're faster than the previously-encountered types of vampire and also because they've got a stick for whackin'. They also make really irritating noises the whole time. They sound like someone recorded a dog yelping in pain, reversed it, converted it to the Game Boy format and stuck it in the game, which seems like a lot of effort for very little reward. Forget their battle cries, though, these guys look familiar...


Super Mario, tribal vampire. An unexpected crossover, but one that I could definitely get behind.
The zoo even has a boss, but he's a little shy:


It's hard to feel threatened when you're hiding behind a lamppost, champ. He might look menacing (and slimy) but he's just as easy to defeat as all the other vampires. Actually I think he's easier to beat because he's slower. There you have it, folks - a boss who is less of a threat than the regular enemies. You don't see that every day.


Everyone gathers at the apartment of Buffy's Watcher / mentor / target of much frankly disgusting anti-British xenophobia / father figure Giles. During this meeting, Giles inspects a worn concrete block, Buffy contemplates a pile of what are either biscuits or large copper coins and Xander and Willow's faces distort further into the nightmarish. Willow looks especially demonic as she appears to be leaking some kind of brown fluid from her eye sockets.
The upside of this meeting is that the plot begins to coagulate. The various multi-ethnic vampires are in town because they have been summoned to Sunnydale by occasional Buffy villain Ethan Rayne. Rayne is essentially the evil-mirror-universe version of Giles in that he's a smug Englishman who's a bit evil and likes to cause chaos by using magic or magick or majjikk, however servants of primordial chaos are spelling it these days. That description makes him sound like Paul Daniels, but don't worry, he's not that bad. Rayne is gathering the world's most powerful vampire clans from across the world, because he needs their leaders to perform an apocalyptic ritual. Oh, and this is all being done under the cover of a Multiculturalism Festival being held at the local university, which makes me wonder whether all those multiculturalism festivals my university held were, in fact, a smokescreen obscuring the dark machinations of a satanic cult. Probably not, because they'd have spent their entire apocalypse budget on flyers and goody bags.


Vampires from around the world, huh? Well, here are the European vampires. They live in an abandoned mansion and dress in formal eveningwear, like all good vampires should. They still look a little like Super Mario, but now with added Fred Astaire. I can't really think of much else to say: the game has already reached a level of repetition that's draining my will to continue. Perhaps this is my own fault for playing the game in one continuous session, because this is a handheld game after all, designed for short bursts of play. Taken one stage at a time the boredom factor might not be as much of a problem, although it's difficult to see why you'd keep coming back to it once you've realised that nothing, apart from the bizarrely-stereotyped enemies, ever changes.


Even that stops being true eventually, because by the next stage there are no new types of enemy, just the same bunch of bikers, poshos and tribal warriors.


We're getting towards the end now, and Angel shows up to... not do much of anything, really. He tells Buffy that the evil ritual will take place at the whirling maelstrom of evil power called the Hellmouth. Thanks for the heads up buddy, although I think there's a good chance I'd have figured that out myself.
And where exactly is this Hellmouth located?


Inside Courtney Love, apparently.


For a place called the Hellmouth this stage is surprisingly sedate, but you do get to meet some new enemies. I think they're supposed to be Egyptian - they do appear near sarcophagi, although quite why there are some ancient Egyptian ruins underneath a Californian town is never explained. These guys come out of Egyptian caskets yet die like vampires, so are they some kind of Mummy-Vampire hybrid? Do they want to drink my blood or do whatever it is that Mummies want to do like, I dunno, murder those that disturbed its eternal slumber? Whatever variety of monster it is it still dies (as so many things do) when you jab a wooden spike through its heart, so I guess it doesn't matter what it is.


This ninja looks a little lost. Deep below the surface of the Earth, surrounded by ancient Egypto-Californian relics, getting punched by that girl from Cruel Intentions, his bewilderment is understandable. I don't think there's much in either the schools of ninjitsu or being a vampire that can prepare you for that.


I've been harsh on the cutscene artwork so far, but it's not all bad: here's Ethan Rayne revealing himself by peeling off a fake face, and it actually looks pretty good. I also quite like the pause menu.


I reckon I could look at that out of context and realise it's supposed to be Buffy, so it's a big step ahead of most of the other portraits. Plus, there's an option to turn the music off. I suggest you exercise this option.


We're into the final stage now, and you have to fight each of the leaders of the vampire clans. They've all ditched their trademark outfits and are wearing robes, so I can't tell you which leader belongs to which group, but this purple-clad chap must be the leader of the guys in the suits. Once you've defeated all the leaders, it's time for the final confrontation.


Not against Ethan Rayne - no, he's not the type to get his hands dirty with actual fisticuffs. Instead you face a generic demon, probably one of Baphomet's less famous relatives who gets all the boring jobs in Hell like stoking the fires and cleaning the rectal impalement spikes. He's big, he can take a punch quite well and he recovers stamina extremely quickly but for a nightmare summoned from the very bowels of Pandemonium he's an absolute pushover to beat. If only he'd used his giant wings to hover a foot or so off the ground I'd have been screwed as my repeated leg-sweeps passed harmlessly below him, but he's not intelligent enough for that and after a brief and extremely one-sided fight he takes a stake to the chest and the game is completed.


Uh, yeah, I guess so? Celebrate all you like. What do you wish to do to commemorate your moment of triumph?


Buffy knows only death now. Nothing but the taking of a life can satiate her bloodlust. Truly, she has become the monster.


And there you have it. Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the Game Boy Color, and what a perplexing ride it was. I say perplexing because even after having played through the game I still don't really know how I feel about it. The combat is fairly good for a title released on a two-button handheld, and it's a damn good job because that's all there is to it. The graphics vary considerably in quality from the sometimes-unfortunate cutscenes to Buffy's smoothly-animated sprites, but I can unreservedly state that the music is a painful mess of unrelated beepings. I think I did the game a disservice by not playing it on its original hardware, because the sense of accumulated boredom would probably have been far less had I played it one level at a time while I was on the bus or something.


It's not a bad game, and it's certainly nice to see the Buffy gang one more time even if they do look like they were drawn by a psychotic with a copy of Mario Paint, but I can't really recommend this game to you unless you really, really enjoy punching a vast horde of vampires - so maybe play it if you're ever forced to watch Twilight.

Bonus!
Here's a handy chart of all the various vampire types and the ethnicities they represent, just in case you happen across one in real life and you need to know whether to say "konnichiwa" or "jolly good show".



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